Up to ABC | The Rescue
by Liesl Clark
May 11, 1999
Angled rocks anywhere from the size of your thumbnail to the size of your house
make up the terrain from Base Camp to Advance Base Camp. It is not your usual
walk—more like preventative stumbling. Just six weeks ago, we were only able
to hike to Interim Camp, also known as Yak Camp—a mixture of rock, tents, hay
and dung—at 19,000 feet in an effort to
acclimatize slowly to the thinner air. We then moved up to Camp II, nestled on
the moraine between 60-foot ice pinnacles. But today we were able to bypass our
early camps, moving from 17,000 at Base Camp to 21,300 feet in a single day.
Palatial rock towers look down upon us as we stumble across the impossible
terrain, drunk from high altitude and the fatigue of walking eight hours
uphill. We're really walking on ice covered in rock—most footsteps placed
uphill slide back down, revealing the black ice underneath. It's like the
Bruce Springsteen song: "One step up and two steps back." The spring thaw is in
full swing, and glacial ice melting into streams can be heard flowing within the
hollows of the glacier. The rock moraine, which is our only means of passage,
carves a narrow corridor between two seas of blue ice towers. Everest looms
overhead, its image reflected in the occasional melted ice pond, like a tidal
pools from the ancient Tethys Sea which once covered the Himalayas.
The day is spent jumping over rocks and crossing what were, only days
ago, ice ponds. I notice a cook boy from a nearby camp at Camp II
collecting water through a hole in the ice. I ask him, in sign language,
waving my arms to make myself clear, "Straight ahead, or should I go around?"
Walking around this small bay of ice would add 15 minutes to the already long
day. He motions for me to continue forward, four steps over the icy unknown to
the rock beyond. I think about it for a moment and then jump, my right leg
plunging directly into the frozen water. My boot fills up and I slurp away.
At the top of the next rock-covered glacial slope I look back and see a Georgian
climber fall in to his waist—both legs—the cook boy watching on in bored
amusement. Three more Georgians would meet the same fate, until we all move on,
squish, squish, in the cold air toward Advance Base Camp, wondering if this
could lead to frostbite. But what we don't know is that a more serious drama of
frostbite is unfolding at Advance Base.
A frozen mist swirls around us as we stagger in to camp.
Dave Hahn and
Thom Pollard are waiting around the radio to hear news from the North Col.
Three Ukranian climbers have been caught out for two nights after successfully
reaching the summit. One has died, one has returned to camp, and the third
has been plucked from his bivvy spot at about 27,200 feet,
severely frostbitten on his face and legs, snow blind, and unable to walk.
Tap Richards and
Andy Politz have climbed to the
North Col to assist in lowering him down the ropes in a litter. What follows is cameraman
Thom Pollard's account of the rescue.
The stars shined brightly through the fading glow of my headlamp. Sparkles of snow glistened
like diamonds, floated onto my face and melted there. In front of me stood the faint
outline of Chomolungma: Everest. If not for the rescue taking place above us I might
have remarked that there could not have been a better night for climbing. However, at
that very moment, my teammates Conrad Anker, Jake Norton, Tap Richards and Andy Politz,
along with several climbers from other expeditions, were lowering a badly frostbitten
Ukranian climber down the steep fixed lines of the North Col. Our job was to meet
them at the bottom of the lines and whisk the patient, all wrapped up in a sled,
down to Advance Base Camp, 1,000 feet in elevation below.
Early on the morning of May 8, three Ukranian climbers had set out for the summit.
We watched from our Base Camp telescope as three tiny figures moved slowly up the
route. In worsening weather and without the aid of supplemental oxygen they moved
on, reaching the summit shortly after noon, Nepal time. We were sure they were in
for trouble, as clouds obscured our view of the route. By early evening, with dark
setting in, none of the climbers had arrived at their tents. A fight for life was
taking place high on the mountain, and there was nothing we could do but wait. One
of the climbers was still not accounted for. We could only presume the worst.
The decision to hike up to the North Col from ABC came late on the evening of
May 10. Comprised of Italians, Ukranians, teammate Dave Hahn and I, Sherpas,
Tibetans and led by New Zealand guide Russell Brice, this last phase of the
rescue held with it the responsibility of carrying our fellow climber from
the base of the North Col (about 22,300'), to Advanced Base Camp at about
21,300'. We departed at 11:30, thinking that by the time we reached the base
of the Col, Anker and crew would be finishing their job on the fixed lines.
Lowering the patient from the North Col (23,100') down the fixed lines
required the rescuers to use all their technical climbing and rope handling
skills. Anker, Norton, Richards and Politz were assisted by a strong Italian
climber, Silvio, who works rescue near Monte Rosa in Italy. Using a rope
approximately 200 feet long, the rescuers started by setting a firm anchor into
the snow and ice, directly above where they wanted to lower the patient.
The rescue sled, attached to one end of the rope, could then be lowered by
feeding the rope through the anchor. A special type of resistance knot makes
the lowering easier, allowing the rescuer at the top to brake or stop the
lowering with relative ease, but also to feed the rope through without diluting
all his strength.
In this case, two climbers worked the rope from the top, lowering slowly, as two
or three other rescuers climbed down with the patient, calling out on the radio
when to slow down, or when to speed up. The rescuers going down with the patient
always fastened themselves into the existing fixed lines, or to the rescue rope,
to insure that a fall didn't harm them. After four separate set-ups, the rescuers
were at the bottom of the Col, ready for relief from our waiting crew.
Our main foe? Darkness. The rubble and rocks making up the lateral moraine present
an aggravating problem on a warm, sunny day. Now we faced the challenge of trying
to time the steps of eight climbers hanging onto a sled containing the body of a man
in need of immediate help. Medical attention and a warm tent awaited the patient.
There was literally no time to lose.
When we met the advance rescue crew at the bottom of the fixed lines I was moved
at the sight of another of the Ukranian climbers, who had been working to lower his
friend from Camp VI at over 27,000 feet for more than 48 hours! We all consider
Roman to be our friend, as we'd climbed side-by-side with him and his team since the
beginning of the expedition. Roman was covered in frost, and his eyes contained the
blank stare of someone in need of rest and warmth. Despite his condition, he refused
to let me take his pack, and wanted only to get on with the rescue after a warm drink.
It took some time to get into the rhythm of carrying the sled down the rocky slope.
Occasionally one of us would stumble, but the others would hold steady. The patient
was obviously in pain, and tried to pull himself up to a seated position during our
infrequent stops. Any aching in my arms or legs seemed so insignificant when I considered
the condition of our patient. His friends kept saying, "Just twenty minutes. Twenty
more minutes!" And barely a whisper came from him. We were all aware that he wasn't
out of danger.
At one point, I looked back and noticed Roman taking one of the carrying positions on
the sled. Of course, his pack was still on. Something very powerful was obviously driving
him. The sight of him helping, on the edge in his own right, will always be an
inspiration to me. In any event, there were several spare rescuers, including those
who'd done the lowering from the Col. With coaching from Russell, one or two lighting
the path ahead, and the rested rescuers switching out with the tired ones, we made good
progress down the moraine. I wish I could say we made for a smooth ride.
After more than an hour of stumbling and shifting positions, easing our way down the
lateral moraine of the East Rongbuk Glacier, we could make out the faint outline of
Russell Brice's Advanced Base, lit up and ready to accept our patient. "Almost there,
you guys." By then, it was nearly 2:30 am.
After nearly three hours round trip from Advance Base Camp, our fellow Ukranian
climber was in the hands of his doctor. Today we learned that his blood pressure
was 60-over-20 when he arrived, with a pulse of 60. This morning he's shown much
improvement, and we hope he'll be healthy enough to withstand the long trip back
to Base Camp, carried by a team of yak herders, and then home.
Our team of climbers depart tomorrow from Advance Base Camp for the North Col,
weather pending. This is the first step in their long journey to the top of the
world. Check back in daily as we report on their summit climb.